• Leah Jewett

In the Wild West of young people’s digital lives: the 2019 Sexplain conference

Updated: Dec 13, 2019

Approaching sex and relationships in a digital age is the theme of Sex Education for the 21st Century – the second Sexplain annual conference, held this year on 30 November. Sexplain’s “unembarrassable sexperts” lead inclusive, intersectional-feminist, sex-positive workshops for young people on topics like porn, periods and pleasure. Today’s conference line-up sounds edgy and thought-provoking.


Parents agree that sexting is affecting children: “But not my child – I can trust them.”

Sexting – aka self-generated sexual content – is the specialty of Emily Setty, University of Surrey lecturer in criminology and author of “Confident” and “hot” or “desperate” and “cowardly”? Meanings of young men’s sexting practices in youth sexting culture. Her research takes a sociological look at the risks, harms and ethics of young people’s digital sexual lives.

These days there’s an “intensified social landscape of risk”, says Setty, with society broadcasting the message that sexting is bad and that young people are vulnerable and need protecting. It’s all based on fear, restriction and criminality.

The picture Setty paints is complex: even if young people aren’t actively sexting – or rather sending nudes (their preferred term) – they’re still learning about themselves as gendered sexualised subjects through this peer-group practice. Teenagers can gain status and popularity by sending or receiving naked images or be shamed for sending them. LGBT teens can be outed.

Sexting is a form of social currency, and young people have created a market – a culture of social sharing, shaming, blaming and bullying – around it.

“We need to promote the idea that there’s social capital to be gained through bystander intervention in supporting a friend who’s been shamed,” reflects Setty. “Non-sexting kids are part of the bystander culture. They have the power to play a role that’s supportive or detrimental to someone else’s wellbeing, so they’re not without responsibility.”


Young people don’t experience the polarity that adults see between real life and the digital space. For young people the iPhone – which launched in 2007 – is an extension of themselves. They grew up with it; they were socialised with it; it plays a part in their “impression management”. “Sexting is all about teenagers’ presentation of themselves,” explains University of Kent lecturer in media studies Dr Kaitlyn Regehr. “For them digital images are part of sex, part of relationships. If we understand that, then we can teach digital literacy in a more holistic way that works for young people.”

Although schools are generally risk averse, they need to initiate discussion about sexting. It’s necessary to politicise the conversation because sexting is part of a broader landscape of sexism, inequality and power imbalances.

But young people – who need a space to talk confidentially – worry that disclosing sexting incidents to their school will get them in trouble or even mean an assembly is held about it.

There is a class divide in how schools handle sexting, maintains Regehr. With schools in socioeconomically deprived areas, social stigma is the concern. “But,” she says, “there’s also social capital for a girl in sending a video of herself giving a blowjob.”

Private schools, on the other hand, focus on the possible long-term repercussions to students’ reputations. “The school’s message is: we are preparing you to be the next set of leaders. So hide your dirty laundry and have sex without cameras present,” says Regehr. “It’s all about preserving a public image, not about consent – which is quite sick.”

It should fall to schools, Setty concludes, to inform young people about how digital rights and sexual rights overlap. Unfortunately, those two areas are “conceptually distinct” for many educators and young people.


With new technology come new forms of abuse – and the reinforcement of old messages about girls’ and women’s bodies. Depressingly, young people are buying into and importing adults’ anxieties and outdated judgmental attitudes about gender, stigma, shame and sexuality onto their new digital terrain.

Gender politics in the digital space still problematise girls’ and women’s sexuality, as in the post-1960s attitude: “You wore the short skirt so it’s your fault,” says Kaitlyn Regehr. “Boys still sees a girl who sexts with them as dodgy, undeserving, different from their sister or mum – she’s not girlfriend material.”

Seeing images of naked girls is a normalised, “boys will be boys” way for young men to bond: “Boys describe it as being like keeping up with fashion,” says Emily Setty. “Sexting is a way for heterosexual boys to be sexually celebrated and accepted, but only if they adhere to a certain form of masculinity that’s hard for boys to meet. If they fall short they too can be socially shamed.”

Meanwhile girls involved with sexting are objectified, dehumanised and assumed to have no self-worth or self-respect. “There’s a narrative that continues to make girls vulnerable – that girls have to say no to sex and that boys will push them into it,” says Setty.

Some girls and young women are pushing back on this. They’re reclaiming the “slut” label but they’re careful about it. There’s an ambivalence for girls in expressing pleasure in sexting – being out and proud about sexting means they’ve fallen down the social hierarchy. Other girls, having internalised shame around sexting, try to protect themselves by saying sexting isn’t sexual for them; it’s just nice to please someone else.

It goes back to the idea of women getting pleasure from pleasing men and prioritising men’s pleasure. The post-feminist argument goes beyond “If you turn on the guy, you’re hot” to: “You can be empowered by being a sex object for men.”

But that’s double-edged sword for girls who, complying with a boy’s sexting request, are met with shame: “You’re a slut because you gave me this picture.”

Girls sometimes send provocative poses to a female friend to test-run what might land as sexy with boys. Ultimately even those pushing back on narratives of shame say they often use sexting as a means to an end: “We need physical pleasure, so we send nudes to get it.”


Despite charting new territory by sending each other nudes, young people often appropriate society’s view about sexting: it’s the image-sender’s fault and they shouldn’t have sent an image in the first place, says Sophie Whitehead, a Sexplain facilitator who has an MA in social justice and education. Together with UCL professor Jessica Ringrose they’ve been working with 150 young people, aged 11 to 18, around body image in advertising and the pressures of sexting. Some drawings the young people made of what they’d seen, sent and received on Snapchat and Instagram were, says Whitehead, quite shocking.

But as Nathaniel Cole, who leads toxic-masculinity workshops with the